Another issue of The Next Batman means 64 more pages of comics set in Gotham’s neo-fascist maybe-future. Up first is Tim Fox’s third adventure as Batman, followed by two backup stories—Outsiders and Arkham Knights. Let’s get to it!
The Next Batman
By the third part of this four-issue story, we should have some idea of why Tim (Jace) Fox has taken up the mantle of Batman. Fans have been anticipating Fox’s story since September 2019, when rumors first circulated that DC wanted a Black character to don Batman’s cape and cowl. He’s been the subject of widespread news coverage and already has a digital-first series lined up to follow Future State. How is it then, at this late stage in his debut story, that we still know so little about Jace Fox?
Last issue, writer John Ridley hinted at Jace’s guilt over his criminal past and presented him with a moral quandary in the form of a fugitive couple who had viciously murdered their daughter’s killer. It was a gruesome, if familiar, problem for a Batman comic to tackle—involving themes of vigilante justice and revenge. Before Jace can figure out how to handle it, the Magistrate’s mercenaries attack and chaos ensues.
We get the fallout from that attack for the first several pages of this issue and, despite some gorgeous art from Laura Braga and Nick Derington (with colors from Arif Prianto), it drags on a bit too long. By this point in Future State, we’ve seen Gotham’s heroes tussle with dozens of these robot ghouls. Outside of showing that Jace has a few choice gadgets up his sleeve, not much is really accomplished here, though it’s clear that the mysterious Peacekeeper-01 really really doesn’t like Batman. (As we learned in Future State: Dark Detective, he already failed to kill Bruce Wayne. We can assume he doesn’t want to make the same mistake with Jace.)
One of the more promising plot threads from earlier issues involved the complicity of Jace’s family in propping up the Magistrate’s regime. His mother, Tanya, is a lawyer who defends the legality of their “shoot on sight” policy toward masked vigilantes and his father, Lucius, runs Wayne Enterprises, which provides tech to the mercenary group. Lucius, who was poisoned by Punchline during the “Joker War” event, does not seem troubled by the Magistrate using his company’s tech to maintain its police state. Renee Montoya, who is the Gotham police commissioner in this alternate future, also seems strangely pro-Magistrate in this issue. It’s not clear why these characters would accept a fascist takeover of their city.
Presumably some kind of reckoning is coming for Jace, his family, and Bruce Wayne, who we know from solicitations will confront his successor in Dark Detective #3. How Jace’s siblings figure into this conflict is still unclear. We’ve seen glimpses of Luke, Tiffany, and Tam (who is recovering from a “relapse” in the hospital), but Ridley hasn’t had them interact at all with Jace, outside of a tense scene at Tam’s bedside room with Luke.
By the time DC releases its deluxe edition of writer John Ridley’s work with Jace Fox, I’m sure his character arc will become more clear. For now, I’m left wondering why Ridley is taking so long to let readers understand who Jace is and what led him to suiting up as Batman. The mystery would be alluring, if not for all the world-building that is happening in the other Gotham books. For The Next Batman to justify keeping the focus so tight on Jace, we need to know more about what motivates him.
After a Katana-focused first story, writer Brandon Thomas hones in on Duke Thomas and Black Lightning in this go-around, which finds the Outsiders clashing with the Magistrate’s cyborg spies while Jefferson seems to evolve into…Doctor Manhattan? (OK, not really. But the new-and-improved Black Lightning is naked and blue.)
This action-heavy story leans heavily on artist Sumit Kumar, who delivers another standout set of pages. One scene showing Duke Thomas jumping out of a window is a perfect showcase for the way Kumar can communicate motion in just one panel. We get small glimpses of Duke tumbling in the air before his full figure fills the page in one breathtaking shot. Kumar is also no slouch at drawing high-tech equipment, which is all but a requirement in the cyberpunk Gotham of Future State. A tank that shows up late in the story looks like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road and colorist Jordie Bellaire adds just the right touch of red and yellow to give the vehicle what looks like eyes.
The emotional—and visual—core of the story is Katana and her sword, which helpfully receives an upgrade from Black (Blue?) Lightning. Of all the standout visuals from this issue, I’m not sure anything can eclipse the splash page of Katana coming into contact with that tank. You can guess who came out looking better from that encounter.
I really enjoyed the first part of this story, which is essentially a Suicide Squad-style romp with Astrid Arkham in the Amanda Waller role. Your mileage may vary with Astrid, whose near-religious fixation on the Sun is a bit tedious, but I found her interactions with the villains under her care to be delightful.
Writer Paul Jenkins has Astrid take herself completely seriously, which only makes it funnier when he reveals what her mission for the villains actually is. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that she will not be the one to take down the Magistrate, though her strategy is arguably the most competent of any other anti-Magistrate forces.
Like a good general, Astrid risks her own life in service of her acolytes, which leads to a warm moment between her and Doctor Phosphorus. “I can’t try to survive for the gift of a life of agony,” he moans. “Neither can I let you die, my brave and beloved knight,” she tells him, holding his radioactive body in her arms.
Say what you want about Astrid, but she does not leave a man behind. Maybe that’s why, upon viewing her triumph in the issue’s brilliant final splash page (drawn by Jack Herbert with colors from Gabe Eltaeb), I was ready to sign up for the Cult of the Sun.
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